Tuesday 10 October 2023
7:30 pm - 10:00 pm
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Question Time – Tuesday 10 October
The State We’re In: Part II
What’s Gone Wrong with the Government?
Ashburton Arts Centre, Tuesday 10 October, 7.30pm
This will be a Question Time-style meeting, where a panel will debate questions put by the audience. The BIG DIFFERENCE is that YOU the audience are invited not only to put the questions, but also to BE THE PANEL!
If you wish to participate – and we hope you will – please submit a question AND/OR volunteer for the panel.
Whether you wish to submit a question or volunteer for the panel, please let us know as soon as you can (preferably by 30 September), including your name and a few words about yourself in a message to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will change the panel during the evening, and will try to include as many who want to be there as possible. Include any questions you have in your email.
The session will be chaired by Prof Joe Foweraker, who also chaired the discussion we hosted during the Tinners Moon Festival in May (and, as some of you may recall from a couple of years back, gave us a series of talks on Democracy and the Making of the Modern World).
Here’s Joe’s take on the topic for our meeting on the 10th October:
“First, there are systemic problems, areas of government itself that perform poorly or not at all.
The criminal justice system, where the courts are backed up, crimes are not prosecuted, and conviction rates are low (especially for rape cases); and where the police solve few crimes and make fewer arrests, with those arrests leading not infrequently to wrongful convictions.
Health and social care, where the NHS is in decline, with waiting lists operating as a covert form of rationing (over half the deaths in England last year were of people on an NHS waiting list); and where a recurrent attempt to integrate health and social care has so far not produced any concrete results. No government has yet even attempted a serious reform of the NHS which appears to be ‘too big to succeed, and too big to fail.’
Railways, where the franchising system is in disarray, with many of the main franchises now once again under public administration.
The civil service, which is overstaffed, profligate (especially in regard of pension arrangements), and out of the office (the average number of days a civil servant now spends in the office each week is just one point six).
And then there are the multiple failures of the DWP, HMRC, DVLA, passport office etc.
Second, there are the problems of policy design and implementation.
Here it is difficult to think of even one area of policy that might be deemed an unqualified success. Among the many failures is HS2, now radically curtailed and currently in stasis; levelling-up, which by most measures has now gone into reverse; illegal immigration, which can only be described as a debacle; zero carbon, which is abstract in conception and hopelessly inadequate in execution (heat pumps, charging points), housebuilding, which has never yet met a target, and the built houses lacking insulation, heat pumps, access, services, and imagination; the national grid, which is already experiencing pinch points from zero carbon; and the broadband roll-out, which is not coming to your home anytime soon.
Third, there are problems of regulation.
This is a general problem, insofar as the privatization of public services has led to a range of policy areas that are regulated by unelected and unaccountable quangos with odd but remarkably similar – and thus confusing – acronyms. Analogously, the wave of public-private initiatives in the provision of health and educational infrastructure has created problems of oversight and accountability, with no clear demarcation of who is responsible for what – in terms of service and financial outcomes.
Instances of spectacular failures of regulation include: the energy market, hugely inflating the costs to consumers; the water companies, also inflating costs and spurring the pollution of rivers and coasts in pursuit of profit; the Bank of England, now constitutionally autonomous, but incompetent in its primary job of monitoring and controlling inflation, so leading to market failures in both bond and financial markets.
Note that this itemised list omits any mention of Scotland and Scottish independence, or of Northern Ireland, or of Brexit and foreign policy writ large. It also eschews any discussion of ‘woke’ issues, where small tails are often wagging rather large dogs. Nor does it refer to IT policy, industrial strategy, enterprise zones, the regulation of social media, and much else beside. There is always more to talk about.
Most importantly, it does not address the reasons for what has gone wrong with the government. Nor does it consider whether things have truly got worse, or whether our daily diet of moral panic and despair fed to us by the red tops and the twenty-four-hour news cycle has created the ubiquitous perception that things have never been this bad before.
Two further thoughts to conclude.
Since the 1970s some analysts and commentators have canvassed the idea of government ‘overload’ as a reason for its accumulating failures. This idea – imported from the US – suggests that government has simply taken on too much in a broadening policy and regulatory agenda which is unrealistic in its scope and therefore destined to fail. As Ronald Reagan said in his inaugural address, ‘Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.’ Others suggest – recent books by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell for example – that the root cause of the malaise is not ‘mission creep’ of this kind, but rather the corruption of our political culture and a fatal decline in the ethos of public service.
Finally, while there may be some traction to be had in blaming one or another party for ‘what’s gone wrong,’ it may be more interesting to consider whether it’s the party system, or the electoral system, or the vagaries of our specific version of representative democracy that is the root cause of our ineffective government.”
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